That education plays a key role in keeping children and adults out of trouble is widely understood, and yet there has been surprisingly little effort to figure out the role education plays in reforming prisoners.
This fall, three states will set out on a five-year journey to change that. Sponsored by the Vera Institute of Justice and funded by some of the most prominent charities, including the Bill and Melinda Gates, Ford, Kellogg, Open Society and Sunshine Lady foundations, Michigan, New Jersey and North Carolina will take prisoners two years before their release and put them in an intensive education program of vocational or college coursework.
Prisoners who complete the program, called Pathways, in prison will then continue their coursework on the outside, transitioning without interruption from there to the employment market.
Twenty years ago prisoners could receive Pell grants for college coursework, but critics saw this as coddling criminals at taxpayer expense and eligibility was stripped in 1994. Higher education in prisons has languished since then, becoming heavily dependent on private efforts, and it varies widely from state to state and prison to prison.
The five-year experiment will be evaluated by the RAND Corporation, said Fred Patrick, who is spearheading the program for the Vera Institute of Justice. Patrick hopes the resulting data will "move the needle" on public investment for prisoner education.
The study will test an integrated education model, beginning two years before release from prison and then continuing seamlessly two years after release until the former prisoner completes the program.
In addition, the states involved in the project are working closely with employers on the ground to secure jobs for former prisoners who complete the program, part of what Patrick calls the "wrap-around supports," aimed at ensuring that those who truly want to succeed do not fall through the cracks.
"There will also be mentoring and tutoring initiatives, and we are asking that the states involved make sure that they have supportive parole policies in place," Patrick said. The states will also be experimenting with broader technological access within the prison, including experimenting with controlled Internet access. Normally prisons are leery about allowing prisoners access to the Internet, so this represents considerable flexibility and some willingness to take risk.
The states will also house participants together in their own housing unit, so as to create a collaborative, dorm-like atmosphere, with positive reinforcement from peers on the same track.
"There are lots of pieces that make this more comprehensive than just simply a college partnering with the prison," Patrick said.
North Carolina is creating "local reentry councils," with the state reaching out to and pressuring local employers to take an active role, said Nicole Sullivan, who spearheads the Pathways Project for the North Carolina Department of Public Safety. Sullivan expects these councils to help educate employers about the upside of giving ex-offenders a chance.
Sullivan said she believes having nationally prominent foundations such as the Gates, Kellogg, Ford, Sunshine Lady and Open Society foundations involved will make it easier to engage employers. She also noted an element of self-interest.
"Employers are having a hard time finding good, qualified workers," she said.
Employers will also be reassured, Sullivan said, because the ex-offenders who complete this program will have been given ample indication they changed their lives.
"That's our pitch to employers: This is a person who has already demonstrated a commitment to doing this because this is going to be a very tough program."
Michigan's Heather Gay notes her state has seen a demographic shift in recent years, with ever larger percentages of prisoners already having high school diplomas or GED's.
"So we knew we needed to expand into postsecondary education, but we didn't know how."
Needless to say, Michigan was thrilled to be selected for the experiment.
"Part of what we wrote into our grant is a huge employment piece," she said. "We are very focused on soft skills and on job searching, and we are going to bring a lot of employers into prisons and educate them."
Each of the states in the Pathways Project brings a slightly different background to the experiment. North Carolina, for example, is conducting two experiments in one. In 2011, the Tar Heel state enacted a sweeping series of reforms known as "justice reinvestment." Among those reforms was a return to mandatory post-release supervision, or parole, which had been done away with 20 years earlier.
North Carolina is rebuilding its parole system at the very moment it launches this experiment with post-release education. The new parole officers will be expected to take a more collaborative, supportive posture, rather than thinking of themselves primarily as rule enforcers.
New Jersey already has an advanced higher education program involving many of the state's leading educational institutions, including Rutgers and Princeton universities. North Carolina has extensive post-secondary education arrangements with community colleges throughout the state.
Michigan is starting from scratch. Since the abolition of Pell grants for prisoners in 1993, Michigan has had no systematic post-secondary education program. Gay is keeping her sights low to the ground, trying not to look beyond five years out.
"It's a five-year grant so I want to focus on the demonstration, and put all the hard work into that, and let the demonstration speak for itself, let the data speak for itself," she said. "Maybe in five years we can have the conversation again and see where we're at."
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